Recruitment officers can barely scrape together the minimal amount of recruits necessary to keep contemporary Ukraine’s bare-bones army going. The decline in the army’s prestige isn’t the only change that has occurred. The military has also become somewhat more feminised. I was a Ukrainian army cadet for four years, and I wasn’t the only one. Ukraine military institutes are full of young girls in uniform. Why do girls decide to join the army? What are the advantages, and what are the disadvantages? A typical day for me at the Kyiv Shevchenko Military Institute began with drill ceremonies at 8.15 in the morning, when everybody, including the girls, had to be dressed in camouflage. Camouflage, by the way, was often quite convenient. You didn’t have to totter around in those unbearable heels so many Ukrainian civilian girls wear. On the other hand, a girl in uniform sometimes looks like a monkey in a zoo, being stared at all the time. At least that’s the way I felt on my way to the Institute in the morning
I remember that once, as a fourth-year cadet, I approached a female newcomer to the Institute and asked her why she’d chosen to become an officer. “Loads of boys,” she said, and the answer made me laugh. Indeed, when I started at the institute in 2003, the few girls there were truly seen as something exotic. But nowadays almost every third cadet is a girl. “I have nothing against girls in the army,” says Oleg Mihhailovich Kopytsya, who heads the Institute’s Department of Foreign Languages and Military Translation. “Very often they’re more diligent and obedient. Since 2006 Ukraine has instituted another system for educating future officers. In the past a kid who entered the Institute found him- or herself suddenly in the Armed Forces, fulfilling duties and things like that. But nowadays you’re a regular student with no obligations. You don’t have to wash the lavatories or go to the Desna River for basic training.” In my day male cadets did have to go through that basic training, and it was really exhausting. Gordiy Siriy, now a fifthyear cadet at the Military Institute, remembers the physical agony of his days at the camp on the Desna. “It was the first time I actually saw what the real army was all about,” he says. “Hours of physical training and sleep deprivation, and you’re always under pressure. Sometimes I thought I couldn’t stand it any more.” He adds, “At the same time I remember our cadet girls staying in Kyiv and doing almost nothing compared with us. A lot of them put on weight, while each of us guys lost about 10 kilos.” “There’s no bias against women in the army, at least among
Inevitably, however, gender issues do enter the picture. I did encounter female soldiers who flirted or otherwise tried to use their charms to get promoted or receive good treatment
the military staff,” says Kopytsya. “If a person is a good officer who cares if it’s a he or a she?” Inevitably, however, gender issues do enter the picture. I did encounter female soldiers who flirted or otherwise tried to use their charms to get promoted or receive good treatment. In theory women and men are equal, but in reality it’s not always so. In addition to getting off the hook when it came to basic training, girls didn’t have to be on duty 24 hours a day and they mostly didn’t have to eat in the soldiers’ canteen. “Girls are here for different reasons,” Kopytsya said. “Some are following their family traditions. Some girls believe that given the overrepresentation of men, they’ll find it easy to get promoted. Only later do they realise what they’ve gotten themselves into. The army isn’t a bed of roses.”
The Perks of the Job
But there are perks. Upon graduating from a military school, a cadet is assured a position as a lieutenant. It’s a huge advantage given how hard it can be to find a good job on today’s market if you don’t have a lot of experience. A female officer can take three years’ maternity leave without losing her position. And all officers’ families get a 50 percent discount on the price of household utilities. (Though there is talk that the government might cancel this benefit.) Cadet Yulia Ahtonska says of her military career that her “duty here is to study.” She adds, “Still, it’s a real challenge to combine two universities. I’m getting two
A girl in uniform sometimes feels like a monkey in a zoo, being stared at all the time. At least that’s the way I felt
educations. One is in the department of philology, where I take the same subjects civilian students do. Then in the afternoon I go to the Military Institute to study military tactics, weapons, military psychology, topography, troop management, and protection from chemical weapons. I’m kind of pretty in the gas mask, you know. At first it was embarrassing but after five years I’ve gotten used to it. “Now I can even draw up a plan for seizing an enemy target,” she continues, “And then take the target with my AK- 47. I’m pretty good at it. The army has changed me a bit. When I entered the Military Institute I was a naive little girl. The Army made me stronger, more persistent and resistant to stress.” Lera Dragan, a fifth-year cadet, has a young son and a husband (he’s an officer). “It’s a real challenge to combine military stuff and maternal status,” she says. “But it was my choice. I’m following my family tradition. There were three children in our family and all of us went into the military. I don’t understand people who say that girls enlist because of the good maternity leave policies. Yes, three women in my group have toddlers, but such things can’t be planned. Being in the military is just natural for me.’ Whatever the pros and cons of having women in the army – or whatever the pros and cons are for women in the army - look at two beautiful young representatives of our Ukrainian military culture and consider them a good recruiting tool. For young women they’re great role models, and as far as boys go, who wouldn’t want to serve under them? Under the protection of such soldiers, Ukrainians can sleep soundly.